His life’s work: Interview with filmmaker Jonathan Caouette (TARNATION, WALK AWAY RENEE)

In 2004, Tarnation came out from nowhere and took American independent cinema by storm. The debut documentary by Houston native Jonathan Caouette chronicles the filmmaker’s turbulent childhood with his mentally-ill mother Rene and her parents through an explosive collage of home videos, still photographs and amateur short films. Besides its brutally intimate family moments, Caouette’s no-budget approach and his use of iMovie (which is the most basic editing tool for an Apple) have given life to a frantic candy-colored style of digital age cinema that was years before filmmakers using DSLR to shoot feature films and laptop editing have become mainstream. After receiving numerous accolades and endorsements from the likes of Roger Ebert and Gus Van Sant, Caouette has largely laid low for a better part of the decade. He had released a documentary about the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival and a horror short. Finally, he turned the camera back to his family and himself again when he had to drive across the country to move his mother from Houston to a mental health facility in New York. The resulting film, Walk Away Renee, is a bittersweet follow-up to the heartbreaking yet hopeful Tarnation. Before we got to talk about the 2011 film in our phone interview, Caouette told me about his preparations for his next film with much excitement.  He said it will be about a special education teacher whose idiosyncratic ways have inadvertently helped a lot of students. It will probably become his narrative debut and he is hopefully things are going to change exponentially for his career in 2013. Our 15-minute interview turned into an hour-long conversation, in which we spent most of the time talking about his two family-oriented documentaries.

Film Monitor: How was life after Tarnation?

Jonathan Caouette: After I made Tarnation in 2004, my life changed a lot. I made this large splash with the film that got a lot of attention and I became a filmmaker after putting my family out there. It was something very personal. It was as though the universe is saying, “You’ve exploited yourself and your family—not in a bad way necessarily. But now you’ll have to pay for it by being a full-time caretaker,” which I have no qualms at all. I love my family immensely. But there were also a lot of personal things happening simultaneously while I was promoting the film. The circumstances surrounding my mother and grandfather had led me move them to New York and take care of them. During the course of that year, there was a big span of time when I didn’t do anything creative. Since Tarnation, I haven’t felt I made any film that I can fully endorse on the same level as Tarnation because it was something I made at home and was discovered later. It was a wonderful thing that happened at a certain time and place. When I made Tarnation, no one expected anything from me because no one knew who I was. Afterwards, having become a caretaker for my family while trying to get different films out the door, it was extremely exhausting and challenging to my psyche. The three films I did subsequently, including All Tomorrow’s Parties and Walk Away Renee, haven’t had the same level of energy that was put into Tarnation. I don’t want to say Walk Away Renee is a sequel because it is definitely its own film. If anything, it is a conclusion to Tarnation.

FM: It feels like a companion piece to Tarnation. Obviously, the trip from Houston to NYC is the backbone of the narrative. But how did you decide when to start and end the film?

JC: That is an interesting question. For both films—especially Tarnation, if someone hadn’t said, “This is when we need the film,” I theoretically could still work on it now. I met someone from a film festival who told me to finish it because there was a deadline to the upcoming New York Gay and Lesbian Experimental Film Festival, which was pitch-perfect for what for the genre of the film. I hadn’t shown anything to anyone in the film world at that time, so I finished the initial version of the film on iMovie in three and a half weeks. Technology in film editing has evolved a lot since then. With With Walk Away Renee, it took me years to finish it [laughs]. The irony is this film, by all intentions, is a much more simplistic and mundane film. It is not as affective and storied as Tarnation. Because of the advance in technology and all the options we have—which I didn’t have when I made Tarnation, this was just a different animal to work on. The frustrating thing about the process is when you’re living in a certain type of situation and you want to express something by the way of cinema, there are certain nuances and dynamics that just weren’t able to be expressed cinematically with this follow-up. To be honest, after the screening at the IFC Center in New York on the 30th, I don’t know if I ever watch the film again.

FM: Why Not?

JC: It’s a film that I don’t have the same kind of excitement about it. I’m being self-deprecating. I’ve gotten a lot of great reviews from the audience and also some mixed reviews from Cannes. As simple as the film looks— we’re mostly in a car and I’m mostly on the phone, but it was one of the toughest films that I’ve ever made. I think I’ve associated a lot of those feelings to the film itself. I don’t think it’s something I want to revisit [laughs]. But never say never. I may be putting my foot in my mouth ten years from now. It was a good experience to work on this film and I had an amazing team. I couldn’t have asked for cooler and more seasoned people to work with. I don’t want to discourage anyone from seeing it because I believe it is a good film. IFC’s decision to release it online via SundanceNOW was a very smart decision.

FM: Going back to Tarnation for a minute. I’ve considered it a breakthrough in many ways.

JC: I’m just very grateful for the opportunity to get it out into the world, though reluctantly. It was very difficult to make that first film. When all is said and done, I’m just glad to open up the conversation about mental illness, which was a taboo topic that has been candy-coated by Hollywood films over the years. It was very misunderstood subject. Many films approach is to show what they think people will get, instead of just showing what mental illness is like. I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But lately, there haven’t been many films that have explored the subject in an authentic way.

FM: I think that your unflinching portrayal of mental illness is one of the many reasons why Tarnation resonates with me because I’ve worked in the mental health field for years.

JC: That’s fascinating. Film and the mental health field are the best companions. Both film and music can be very therapeutic to people. My mother lives just adjacent to my apartment in New York. As a big DVD junkie, I’m constantly giving her old movies and play music on records for her, which I know is stimulating her in some way. To see my mother’s face lights up when I play her an old Led Zeppelin song, that is the best thing in the world.

FM: Despite exposing all the pain and hurt inside the family, I always feel that your films are filled with affection for your mother and grandparents. Since Tarnation, it has become increasingly popular for artists to disclose the most private details of their personal lives to their audiences. Even though you’re not the first person to have done so, your film was the one that struck a chord in the mid-2000s.

JC: Thank you, that is so nice of you to say [laughs]. But you know what’s weird about it now? I wonder had I made Tarnation in 2012, frame by frame exactly the way it was, I don’t know if it would resonate the same way as it had in 2003 when it came out. There is a milieu of confessional videos on YouTube with still photographs, melancholy music and texts that a twelve-year-old could make. Mind you, many of these things are not feature films with full epic stories like Tarnation is. But I don’t know if Tarnation would have flourish now in the same way that it had eight years ago.

FM: That’s an interesting point because it was made in a very specific time in our cultural and technological shift.

JC: I brought back the text device in Walk Away Renee and I think that’s why Mike Hale from New York Times hated it so much [laughs]. It occurred to me that he had not seen Tarnation and just saw this as a standalone film. The people who hadn’t gotten into the film don’t know where it’s coming from. That was the reason why I reverted to the device I used in Tarnation. I felt like I needed to revisit it aesthetically and it was almost paying a homage to the original film in some way.

FM: I get a sense that you’re trying to draw a bridge between the two films, even though the technology has advanced and you had a bigger budget for Walk Away Renee, which feels more like a portrait than a record of family history.

JC: Right, it is more of a portrait. Gus Van Sant has turned me onto the films of Bela Tarr in the past few years. And I was invited to Warsaw to be on a jury for a bunch of these slow-burning films with 15-minute shots. There was one film I really like—Le quattro volte. There were tons of these films I’ve seen and I got very inspired. A lot of these films, I felt, were reactionary to the post-MTV generation, negating frenetic editing and getting back into cinema. The situation concerning my mom’s move to New York came up, I thought why not make a road movie with her? Originally, it was just an experiment. No matter what would happen, that was going to be the film. Somewhere along the away, I got restless after just cutting the film as a road movie. I wanted it to focus on my mom. So I had to provide this back story, which was very challenging because I feel like I had to re-paraphrase and edit it down from Tarnation. I’m glad the film is out there but it was a tough ride [laughs].

FM: It seems to me that you want to incorporate the manic style from Tarnation into Walk Away Renee, which was intended to be a quiet and serene film.

JC: Yes, that is exactly what I wanted to do. It’s been almost three years since Walk Away Renee came out. I wonder if those two elements counteract each other [laughs]. It is an interesting pill to swallow. What you get in Walk Away Renee, you won’t find in Tarnation. There is more exploration of the dynamics between the characters in the new film.

FM: You’ve quoted Albert Einstein, shown clips from Michio Kaku’s TV show and made an animated space sequence in the film. What is your fascination with the astrophysics?

JC: I’m a firm believer in parallel reality, in a way that when you cut an onion, you’ll see the layers.  I have this weird idea that in a parallel reality, there is a possibility that I may have the illness that my mom has and my mom may in turn be the caregiver.

FM: Is it fair to say Walk Away Renee is transitional period for you as a filmmaker?

JC: It is, definitely. It is the end of something. 2013 will a renaissance for me as a filmmaker. I’m going to be exploring new horizons and subjects that I’ve wanted to tackle in a long time.

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